Why Russia Supports Repressive Regimes in Syria and the Middle East

The following post has just been published as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo. It was originally presented in early May at a PONARS workshop in Tartu, Estonia. Click here for more information and other memos from this conference.

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In recent months, Russia (with Chinese support) has increasingly staked out a strong position in support of the Assad regime in Syria. As Syria’s allies dwindle, Russia has become its foremost protector in the international arena. In doing so, it has followed a policy consistent with previous statements in support of regimes facing popular uprisings throughout the Middle East. This is not a new policy, as similar statements were made by Russian leaders during the Green revolution in Iran in 2009. To explain this policy, many analysts have focused on the importance of Russian economic investments in countries such as Libya and Syria or on political connections dating back from the Soviet days.

Undoubtedly,economic factors play a role in determining Russian policy. But the threat of spreading political instability and concern about setting precedents are at least as important for Russian leaders, who see the potential for the spread of unrest to other states in the region and fear the demonstration effects of successful revolts on vulnerable regimes in Central Asia. This memo will discuss the balance between interest-based and ideological factors in determining Russia’s response to the Arab Spring.

I argue that although Russia’s economic and strategic interests in the Middle East have played a role in shaping its response to the Arab Spring, fear of demonstration effects and positioning in the international arena have arguably had a larger effect on Russia’s support for Middle Eastern dictators over the last year. Russian leaders’ primary goal has been to prevent the establishment of a norm that allows for international intervention in response to government repression of domestic protests or violent uprisings. Second, the Russian government has sought to counter what it perceives as U.S. strategic gains in the Middle East. Economic factors, including arms sales, are thus only the third most important reason for Russian support for Bashar al-Assad and other Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders facing popular revolts over the past year. Continue reading

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Update on Russian arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa

In early March, I posted a list of Russian arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa. Since then, more comprehensive information has come out on this topic. Most importantly, Ruslan Pukhov just published a comprehensive overview of Russian arms contracts with North African states in the most recent issue of VPK. Plus the SIPRI databases are back online and can provide some additional information as well. So what follows is a bit of a reprise, but with a significant amount of new information.

Contracts with Libya since 2005 include (prices and year contract concluded listed in parentheses):

  • modernization of Libyan S-125 Pechora-2 SAMs (SA-3 in NATO parlance) to the Pechora-2M level (<$100 million) (2009)
  • purchase of 12 Tor-M2E SAMs (SA-15 in NATO parlance) ($300 million) (2010, though other reports indicate 2008)
  • purchase of an unknown number of Igla-S portable SAMs (SA-24 in NATO parlance) (<$100 million) (2008)
  • modernization of 145 T-72 tanks ($300 million) (2010)
  • purchase of BMP-3M infantry fighting vehicles ($300 million) (not included on latest list)
  • purchase of 6 Yak-130 training aircraft ($120 million) (2010)
  • repair of 12 MiG-23ML fighter jets (<$50 million) (2006)
  • building a factory in Libya to produce AK-103 machine guns under license ($500 million) (2010)
  • purchase of 9M123 Chrystanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems (not included on latest list)
  • purchase of 3 Molniya missile boats, with 96 Kh-35 Uran anti-ship missiles ($250 million) (2010)
  • repair and modernization of 2 Koni-class frigates and 3 Nanuchka II-class corvettes ($200 million) (2010)

In addition, various reports indicate that negotiations were fairly advanced on an additional $2 billion deal that was to include:

  • 12-15 Su-35 fighter jets
  • 4 Su-30MK fighter jets
  • Il-76 transport planes
  • Ka-52 helicopters
  • 48 T-90SA tanks
  • Pantsir-S1 self-propelled SAMs
  • 1-2 Kilo submarines

All of these contracts and potential contracts will undoubtedly be canceled now. If Gaddhafi stays in power, UN sanctions will prevent their fulfillment. If he is replaced, the new leaders will most likely seek to review his military procurement strategy — with a likely shift to a more Western-oriented procurement posture.

Known contracts still to be fulfilled with Algeria are even more extensive:

  • purchase of 16 SU-30MKI fighter jets ($1.5 billion)
  • modernization of 250 T-72M tanks (150 already completed) (total value $200 million)
  • purchase of 16 Yak-130 training aircraft (part of $8 billion deal signed in 2006)
  • modernization of one Koni-class frigate and one Nanuchka-class corvette ($100 million)
  • purchase of 3 S-300 air defense systems and 38 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems (part of $8 billion deal signed in 2006)

Most of these are leftovers from the big contracts concluded in 2006, with just the fighter jets being a new contract signed in 2010 as a replacement for the canceled deal for MiG-29SMT fighter planes.

Syria is the other major customer for Russia’s military industry. Recent contracts that have yet to be completed include:

  • modernization of 24 MiG-29s to SMT level
  • purchase of 2 MiG-31M interceptors, second-hand from Russian air force
  • purchase of 8 battalions of Buk-M2E missile systems ($1 billion)
  • modernization of S-125 Pechora-2 SAMs to the Pechora-2M level
  • modernization of 200 T-72 tanks to T-72M1M level (part of $500 million contract to modernize 1000 tanks, 800 already completed)
  • purchase of 9M123 Chrystanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems (status uncertain)
  • purchase of 36 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems (part of 2006 contract, 30 delivered in 2008-10)
  • purchase of 2 K-300 Bastian coastal defense systems

While the recent repression of anti-government protesters in Syria has not yet led to international sanctions or arms embargoes, the political uncertainty that now surrounds the Assad regime must make the Russian suppliers for these contracts very nervous.

Other contracts with potentially vulnerable states in the region include:

  • Yemen: purchase of 100 BTR-80A armored vehicles and 50 120-mm towed mortars ($60 million)
  • Egypt: modernization of 20  S-125 Pechora-2 SAMs to the Pechora-2M level (10 completed)
  • Kuwait: purchase of BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles
  • Kuwait: purchase of 2 Murena assault hovercraft (as payment for Russian debt to Kuwait)
  • Jordan: construction of factory to make Khashim RPGs
  • Lebanon: purchase of 6 Mi-24 helicopters
  • Lebanon: purchase of 31 T-72M1 tanks
  • Lebanon: purchase 36 M-46 130mm towed guns
  • United Arab Emirates: purchase of 50 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems (16 delivered) ($800 million). Deal originally made in 2000, first deliveries delayed from 2003 to 2009.

The instability in North Africa and the Middle East is clearly likely to have a potentially quite significant negative impact on Russian arms sales to the region. The leaders of the two largest clients, Libya and Syria, are both currently engaged in fights for their political survival. International sanctions will close the Libyan market to Russian sales for the foreseeable future regardless of the outcome of the ongoing military conflict there. Although chances are that the Assad regime will survive the current wave of protests sweeping through Syria, the use of the army in mass repression may make it more politically difficult for Russia to sell arms to Assad in the future.

Meanwhile, there are few new customers in the region. Algeria has largely turned away from Russian equipment after its bad experience with the MiG-29 purchase. Morocco does not have the money to buy much in the way of advanced equipment. Egypt’s new government is likely to maintain its close relationship with the U.S. military. The Gulf States have traditionally purchased most of their military equipment from the U.S. and Western Europe as well and are unlikely to shift to Russian equipment, since most of them have the money to pay for the most advanced Western items and the political relationships to make such deals happen.

Given this situation, it seems that Russia’s arms exporters will have to focus primarily on Asia and Latin America in the foreseeable future.

Russia’s Conflicts on Libya

Earlier this month, the Russian Government surprised many observers by going along with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized international enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia was initially expected to veto the resolution. Instead, Russia chose to abstain in order to ensure the protection of civilians, while its ambassador to the United Nations made statements expressing concern about how the resolution would be implemented.

In recent years, Russia has had close trade relations with the Libyan Government. In particular it has signed billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with the regime of Muammar Gaddhafi. This is the context that partially explains the removal of Vladimir Chamov, Russia’s ambassador to Libya, after he sent a telegram to Moscow arguing that allowing the UN resolution to pass would represent a betrayal of Russia’s state interests. Chamov has since returned to Moscow where he has publicly spoken out against the implementation of the no-fly zone.

In the last week, Russia’s attitude toward the no-fly zone has unexpectedly become a factor in Russian domestic politics. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s statement on March 21 criticized the UN resolution for getting involved in an internal conflict. In the most controversial part of his remarks, Putin argued that the resolution allowed international forces to take virtually any measures against a sovereign state, and in this he said it resembled medieval calls to crusades, “when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it.”

The response from President Dmitry Medvedev was almost immediate. He argued that Russia’s abstention on the resolution vote was the proper position. Furthermore, he dressed down Putin (though not by name) by saying:

Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusades’ and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse than what is going on now. Everyone should remember that.

And he removed Chamov from his position, essentially for public insubordination. Putin came out the next day with a statement indicating that the president is responsible for foreign policy in Russia and that he backed his president’s policies. A spokesman indicated that Putin’s previous statement was simply an indication of his own personal views rather than an official policy statement.

It may be that this conflict was yet another example of the good cop-bad cop show that the Russian leadership tandem have been putting on for the last three years. Or it may be that this is the first serious indication that Medvedev and Putin are engaged in a serious behind the scenes tussle for the right to run for president in 2012. I am still slightly on the side of the former, though a second public disagreement of this level of seriousness would be enough to convince me that this is a genuine conflict.

Rather than focus on the domestic conflict, I want to examine why Russian politicians see this conflict the way they do. I would argue that Russian leaders’ inconsistent position on Libya is essentially a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

I believe that Russian leaders decided not to veto Resolution 1973 for two reasons. First, they did not want to alienate Western leaders who were pushing for the intervention. While the rapprochement with the United States is important to them and certainly played a role here, we should also remember the importance of Russian political and economic ties with European states and especially France and Italy, both of whom were strongly in favor of a no-fly zone because of the potential for a humanitarian and refugee disaster in the event of an attack by Gaddhafi’s forces on Benghazi. Second, Russian leaders did not want to be blamed for blocking the intervention if the result was a large scale massacre of civilians.

On the other hand, Russian leaders also did not want to create a new norm of international intervention in internal conflicts, particularly when these conflicts were the result of a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler. They genuinely dislike what they see as a Western predilection for imposing their values and forms of government on other parts of the world. They remember the color revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia, in which friendly regimes were replaced by ones that were to a greater or lesser extent anti-Russian.

Furthermore, they believe that these popular protest movements were organized and funded by Western governments, particularly the United States. This creates a certain amount of suspicion of similar protests leading to the removal of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, even when the deposed rulers do not have particularly close ties to Russia.

So Russian leaders are understandably nervous about the coalition’s rather expansive interpretation of Resolution 1973. They were willing to allow for the establishment of a no-fly zone in order to avert a likely massacre of civilians and to help their European partners avoid a flood of refugees on their soil. They are much less willing to see NATO forces provide military assistance to a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler that it has traditionally supported.

I suspect that Russian leaders will increasingly begin to speak out against the military campaign if this conflict drags on. They will be especially concerned if it becomes increasingly clear that NATO air strikes are targeting Gaddhafi’s ground forces rather than limiting themselves to preventing Libyan air forces from targeting civilian areas.

This article was originally posted at Atlantic Sentinel, where I blog occasionally about Russian politics.

Russian arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa

I have seen a bit of discussion here and there about how Russian leaders are reluctant to support anti-government protests in the Middle East and North Africa because of fears that similar protests may occur in Russia. While fear of domestic instability is a major aspect of the calculus for Russian politicians on this issue, it’s not the only issue. Russian defense industry stands to lose a great deal of money from military contracts should some of the existing regimes collapse. Libya,  Algeria and Syria are particularly important customers for Russia, while there are smaller contracts with Yemen, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

The New York Times reported a couple of days ago that lost opportunity costs from unfulfilled arms contracts with Libya amount to $4 billion, while total losses in the region if other regimes fall could add up to $10 billion, which is equivalent to the total value of Russia’s military exports in 2010.

The Times report did not list specific export programs, but some information (though incomplete) is readily obtainable from SIPRI and from CAST. SIPRIs databases are currently offline for an update, so the following is based exclusively on the tables in CAST’s Eksport Vooruzheniia journal from November 2010.

Known contracts with Libya include (prices listed where available):

  • modernization of Libyan S-125 Pechora-2 SAMs (SA-3 in NATO parlance) to the Pechora-2M level
  • modernization of 145 T-72 tanks
  • purchase of BMP-3M infantry fighting vehicles ($300 million)
  • purchase of 6 Yak-130 training aircraft ($90 million)
  • building a factory in Libya to produce AK-103 machine guns under license ($600 million)
  • purchase of 9M123 Chrystanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems
  • purchase of Molnia missile boat

Known contracts with Algeria are even more extensive:

  • purchase of 16 SU-30MKI fighter jets ($1 billion)
  • modernization of 250 T-72M tanks (150 already completed) (total value $200 million)
  • purchase of at least 10 Yak-130 training aircraft
  • modernization of one Koni-class frigate and one Nanuchka-class corvette ($100 million)
  • Purchase of 3 S-300 air defense systems and 38 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems (part of $8 billion deal signed in 2006)

Other contracts with potentially vulnerable states in the region include:

  • Syria: MiG-29 modernization
  • Syria: purchase of 8 battalions of Buk-M2E missile systems ($1 billion)
  • Syria: modernization of S-125 Pechora-2 SAMs to the Pechora-2M level
  • Syria: modernization of 200 T-72 tanks to T-72M1M level (part of $500 million contract to modernize 1000 tanks, 800 already completed)
  • Syria: purchase of 9M123 Chrystanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems
  • Syria: purchase of 30 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems (part of 2006 contract)
  • Yemen: purchase of 100 BTR-80A armored vehicles and 50 120-mm towed mortars ($60 million)
  • Egypt: modernization of 20  S-125 Pechora-2 SAMs to the Pechora-2M level
  • Kuwait: purchase of BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles
  • Jordan: construction of factory to make Khashim RPGs
  • Lebanon: purchase of Mi-24 helicopters

Obviously, Russia is not unique in this regard. I’m sure that a list of U.S. arms deals with vulnerable Middle Eastern states would be much longer. (And notice the contortions that U.S. leaders have gone through to act like they’re supporting popular protests while maintaining channels of communication with friendly regimes in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, etc.) So please don’t take this post as a condemnation of Russian actions. I’m just trying to spell out some of the specifics behind the top-line numbers.